Hungary's Statue of Liberty

Hungary's Miss Liberty

WE’VE HEARD FOR YEARS that the closest (though still distant) linguistic cousin to Finnish and Estonian (the languages of my parents) is Hungarian, but the latter is the most incomprehensible language written with Roman characters that we’ve encountered yet (but wait till we get to the Czech Republic). A guide explained that the Westward-moving Magyars encountered the Finns and Estonians in the Urals along their way and that they all “influenced” one another during their common stay there. I suppose that’s why I’ve also heard that it takes computerized analysis to detect the linguistic connection. If anything, the impression we take away from Hungarian culture and design is a vague sense of Turkish influence.

(Click on any photo to enlarge it, by the way)

Headstone Propeller

Headstone Propeller

We reach Budapest from Krakow through the terrain of the High Tatras mountains along the Polish-Slovakian border. We stop for a mandatory bus driver’s rest stop at a rustic Polish Catholic church near the border. Like every other cemetery we have seen, this one is decked with flowers and other memorial tokens. We wonder if there has been a special memorial day recently, but no—it’s like this all the time. Some of the grave markers are quite imaginative; a pilot’s headstone sports a propeller.

In Slovakia

In Slovakia

Slovakia, once melded with the Czechs into Czechoslovakia, decided to dissolve their union at the end of 2002. Why did they disengage? A friend working in the Czech Republic tells us he once asked a Czech the question. “Beats me,” said the Czech, “Seems stupid.” Hmm. “Can you tell me what’s different about the Slovaks?” asks my friend. “Nothing,” says the Czech. Another try: “Who are some famous Slovaks?” my friend asks. “There are no famous Slovaks!” answers the Czech. We’re beginning to understand why Slovakia walked away. ‘Nuff said.

Boar's Head at a Slovakian Restaurant

Boar's Head Hospitality

It’s ski country in these mountains; we see slopes, lifts, and chalets. It’s a long drive, so we make a planned lunch stop at a traditional restaurant of relatively recent, though still traditional, log construction. A great hearth decorates the center of the hall, and game trophies and farming implements decorate the walls. Among the expected deer heads are a snarling fox, an eagle with wings spread, and a smiling, though appropriately ugly, wild boar. It would be nice to have some of that critter’s meat in a savory sauce, but they’re not serving that today. Our son gets a smartphone photo emailed to him, though.



BUDAPEST IS A SPA. There are more thermal springs here than New York City has potholes. Health insurance pays for treatment at the thermal baths, some of which are housed in palatial buildings. Taking the waters will cure common complaints and “many other diseases.” “Other,” I take it, means conditions “other” than the ones you have.



And, as most know, this is a two-faced city—a combination of Buda (the high ground named, they say, after Attila the Hun’s brother) and flat Pest, joined by the several bridges that span the curving Danube in the middle (it’s anything but blue, by the way).

Mathias Church in Buda's Castle District

Mathias Church

Our hotel is perched above the banks of the Danube on the Buda side of the city, in the Castle District, near Mathias church and the Fisherman’s Bastion—an oddly-named citadel of walls and towers from which, apparently, local fisherman helped stage a successful defense of Buda against the Turks. From here, the views of the Danube and of Pest are wonderful indeed. Only the view from a panoramic high point further down river on the Buda side affords a more comprehensive view—as it takes in the Castle District as well.

The Fishermen's Bastion in Buda

Fishermen's Bastion

There are also little Pests—GNATS—small clouds of them—outside the hotel window, outside the double-decker tour bus, on a Budapest street corner, in the village on the Danube. They are tiny, like no-see-ums, and their swirling clouds are ominous, but they are utterly benign—wee wimpies lacking the power and, happily, the inclination to annoy. If they dare touch you, they are the merest, glancing presence on your cheek.

A Building in Pest

Building in Pest

We undertake most of our sightseeing in Pest. Imagine a city where every other building is the Ansonia or the Apthorp (you have to be a New Yorker). Some small fraction have been restored to past glory—the way they looked before the 20th century invasions of the German and home-grown Nazis, the Soviets, and the Communist police state. The rest await investment, and opportunities—whether for prosperity or bankruptcy—abound.

The Parliament building, largest in Europe, is a gorgeous roll-up of a spiky Gothic cathedral, the Taj Mahal, London’s Parliament, and Versailles.

Hungarian Parliament

Hungarian Parliament

Interior of Budapest Opera

Budapest Opera Interior

The Opera can match gilded putti and frescoes with Europe’s best. And check out the 19h-century climate-control system that supplied heat in winter and cool air (passed over ice blocks) in summer through a circular vent under every seat.

Air Conditioning at the BBudapest Opera

Climate Control

Budapest Chain Bridge

Chain Bridge

The Chain Bridge (Budapest’s elegant Brooklyn Bridge) crosses the Danube from flat Pest to high Buda, where a tunnel meets it to provide passage through a hill to the outlying portions of the city beyond.

View of Pest from the Castle District Funicular

From the Funicular

Pedestrians who cross the bridge can ride a funicular tram up the steep hill to the aforementioned Castle District, to Buda Palace (now a museum), the restored Mathias Church, the Fishermen’s Bastion, and our hotel. We find few finer views of Budapest than the vista from our hotel window.

Budapest's Great Synagogue

Great Synagogue

BUDAPEST’S GREAT SYNAGOGUE looks much like a Roman Catholic church, but for the designs on its walls and the differences in what would be a church’s altar. No wonder—its architects were known for designing churches. This is the world’s second largest synagogue, after Temple Emanu-El in New York City, and holds 6,000 on high holy days. For those well-attended services, women sit in the two levels of galleries on each side. While the synagogue is neither Orthodox nor Reform (an American Judaism), services altogether follow the Orthodox form, though customs do not.

Synagogue Museum Display

Synagogue Museum

The synagogue occupies the site of a house where Hungarian journalist and Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl lived. Adjacent to the synagogue is a small museum holding precious artifacts of Hungarian Jewry and their worship—and a sober exhibit chronicling the Hungarian Holocaust.

Nazis at the Fishermen's Bastion

Fishermen's Bastion Occupied

As Hungary, with its Arrow Cross Nazi-wannabe party, voluntarily allied itself with Nazi Germany, it was not an occupied country until late in the war, and its Jewish population was not torn away to the death camps until 1944, when the Nazi extermination machine was its most efficient. The delay meant that towards the end of the war, a large proportion of death-camp victims were Hungarian, but it also meant that many Hungarian Jews escaped annihilation, as the Nazis fled in retreat before they could finish their murderous work. In all, some 550,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered—about one out of every ten European Jewish victims. Beside those loaded on trains to die in the camps, many were shot by Hungarians and thrown into the Danube or into mass graves.

Budapest Synagogue's Tree of Life

Tree of Life

In the garden outside the synagogue and museum is a memorial cemetery (no one actually is buried there) and a Tree of Life—a stainless-steel sculpture in the form of a weeping willow tree.

Leaf in Synagogue Tree of Life

Leaf, Tree of Life

Its leaves bear the names of the dead.

HUNGARY’S NATIONAL MUSEUM concentrates a deep draught of Hungarian history and artistry for the visitor. Once an empire, then junior partner in another with Austria, Hungary was dismembered after World War I. “We wuz robbed” remains a national refrain today, but no one seriously expects a remedy now. It’s a pity that no photography allowed here.

The Ottomans occupied Budapest in 1541. No help came to Hungary from the rest of Europe until alarm spread at the prospect of further Turkish expansion and a European army arrived to drive out the Ottomans in 1686. The Austrians, in particular, felt entitled to stay and squat on Hungarian territory they helped liberate.

Military, official and private costume, as well as decorative motifs and classical music all carry a dose of Turkish Orientalism. What is most striking, however, is the richness of Hungarian graphic design—from pre-20th century official proclamations and certificates to theater posters and political propaganda and commercial advertisements from the 20th century. The vividness, composition and color palette are pleasing and communicative. We wonder to what extent Hungarians may have been represented in the American and British advertising industries…

Restored New York Cafe

New York Cafe

Among foreign real estate investments in Budapest, the Italian Boscolo Hotel group’s restoration of a baroque building downtown is an obvious success. They have restored a fabulous ground-floor interior occupied by a restaurant they call the New York Cafe. Several anti-cherubic devil figurines hold up the exterior sidewalk lights. The former dance academy across Budapest’s “Champs D’Elysee” from the Opera House unfortunately exemplifies failure. An investment group ran into financial and regulatory trouble obstructing their efforts to restore this lovely building, which has good bones but a deteriorating facade.

Budapests's Terror House

Terror House

A GRIM DEPICTION OF LIFE AND DEATH in Hungary under foreign and home-grown Fascists and Communists forms the substance of the House of Terror at 60 Andrássy Blvd—the headquarters, successively, of the Hungarian Nazis and the Hungarian Communist secret police, with their Berlin and Moscow advisers. In the atrium just beyond the museum entrance sits a menacing Soviet tank in a shallow pool of reflective water. A display of photographs and names of Hungarian victims lines the high walls around it.

Soviet Tank and Names of Victims

Soviet Tank, Victims' Names

The winding galleries trace the story of Hungarian alliance with Nazi Germany; the indigenous Arrow Cross fascist party; the German occupation and extermination of Jews; the police state of control and terror created by the Soviet and Hungarian Communists; the failed 1956 uprising crushed by the Russians and their tanks; and ultimate political liberation, beginning in 1989.

Some criticize the Museum for emphasizing the communist police state more than Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust. The latter, however, is presented straightforwardly and without equivocation, though there is, to be sure, a difference in the volume of the respective displays.

Gallows at Terror House

Basement Gallows

Why make this museum a destination over Parliament or the thermal baths? “Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). In any case, there was no room left on the Parliament tour, which our fellow tour members say became its own vexation, due to crowds, delays, and lack of a good English guide…

The cells in the basement of 60 Andrássy Boulevard are, if anything, less sanitized than those at Auschwitz, having been disinfected but otherwise appearing as they would have when in use. There’s a narrow, standing-room-only isolation cell lit by an always-on light. Here’s a torture chamber, with bludgeons and other instruments, a water tub, chains, and an interrogation light. Here’s a room with a gallows, darkly illuminating the videotaped testimony of a former guard or prisoner about the execution procedure followed there. All these represented the realities of life under a totalitarian regime.

Raoul Wallenberg Memorial

Wallenberg Memorial outside Synagogue

Each cell, large or small, bears names, photographs and descriptions of its known occupants. Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved many Jewish lives through his issuance of Swedish passports, is one, memorialized on the wall of a medium-sized cell. The Russians declared not many years ago that he was, in fact, executed in their Gulag. A memorial cell holds several symbolic gallows and the names and photographs of young people executed here.

Flag of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

1956 Flag

A larger room in the basement tells the story of the crushed 1956 rebellion, which, despite its tragic failure, brought some reforms and spurred the exodus of 200,000 Hungarians. At one end stands the flag of the revolution—a Hungarian flag of the era with its Communist insignia cut out—a flag with a hole in the middle.

What seems the largest room in the museum’s upper floors chronicles Communist attempts to ban, co-opt, and destroy religion in Hungary. 65% or so Roman Catholic at the beginning of this period, Hungary also held a sizable (23%), indigenous Reformed Evangelical population. Brutal towards all, the Hungarian Communists feared repercussions from their treatment of the Reformed Christians less than Catholics or Lutherans, because the Reformed believers lacked international ties and advocates. Many churches and religious leaders were pressured or forced to sign “agreements” ceding rights and property of churches to the state.

One exhibit in the museum defines the word “turncoat,” showing, in an old film, a Hungarian Fascist Arrow Cross member taking off that party’s uniform and changing into a Hungarian Communist Party uniform: s/he simply “turned coats.” Many revised their affiliation overnight.

The head of the political police, the ÁVH, kept his office in this dreaded building. His organization turned Hungarians against one another: parents against children, children against parents, neighbor against neighbor. One of every three Hungarian families is said to have been suffered loss through internments, disappearances, and deaths. Not a few “troublemakers” were tortured or beaten to death here and in the nearby prison. Not even the police themselves, nor yet their head, were safe from this brutality. Even Gábor Péter, head of the political police, and Jewish, was denounced and jailed in 1953, and executed in a purge of party leaders of Jewish origin instigated by Josef Stalin in Russia and exported to its socialist satellites.

THIS BUILDING BEARS WITNESS to the human damage wreaked through the damnable drives of men to control the lives of others—exercising as much deceit and brutality as opportunity affords. One must respect the Hungarian people for enduring what they have suffered, and one must take seriously the persistent obsession of ruling powers to control and suppress their populations. Technology available now tor closely monitoring and facilitating control over a population is immensely more suited to the job than that available to the repressive regimes of the 20th century. Some of the same technology also offers more openness and transparency, making it more difficult for despots and brutes to hide. Despite anyone’s inclination to believe otherwise, human nature has not changed. All the capacity and drive to oppress, and far more of the technology to facilitate it, await crisis and opportunistic ambition.